The Carousel of Progress

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Carousel of Progress

I am a Disney addict. I love everything Disney. There is something about Disney and its culture that draws me in and makes me feel happy and, dare I say, hopeful.

This is intentional. Walt Disney was focused on creating movies, cartoons, and theme parks that transported his audience to another world. He was also a utopian thinker. One of his dreams, which he was never actually able to see, was to create a prototype community of tomorrow in Florida where all of his utopian ideals could be realized. Today, we know this theme park as EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) but our current EPCOT is a far cry from what Walt originally envisioned.

Walt believed in progress. His career is a fascinating study of progress. He accomplished dreams that no one thought were possible. He even created a ride for the 1964 World Fair centered on the idea of progress, called the Carousel of Progress. If you want to experience the ride, all you need to do is enjoy a day at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. It is a ride that has stood the test of time.

The ride is a circular theater that rotates from vignette to vignette highlighting the progress of innovation throughout the 20th century. The ride is hopeful, featuring a catchy tune called “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”. If you listen closely, the Carousel of Progress embodies all of Walt Disney’s ideas about tomorrow and about progress.

Progress is wonderful. Human progress has made travel easier. We can now travel across the world in a day or less. Medical technology has made health care better. Personal technology has changed the way we communicate and interact with the world around us. Certainly, our lives are more convenient than earlier generations. This is the point of Disney’s Carousel of Progress. Our lives are becoming more and more convenient. But are they better? Are we better?

As I reflect on progress, I see four truths about progress that Christian educators need to keep in mind. If we understand these truths, we will be able to Biblically lead our schools into the future.

Progress is Deceptive
Making life easier and more convenient is wonderful but it is deceptive. Humans are fascinated with improvement because we long for this world to be right. We want to experience life as it should be, how God created it to be. We want to be in control.

In Genesis 3, we read the story of the fall. Satan deceives Eve by convincing her that by eating the fruit of the tree she can be like God. She will know the difference between good and evil. In short, according to Satan, she needed to make progress. Satan was deceiving her by making her believe that there was more she could experience. He was tempting her to believe that God was withholding something from her.

Progress is deceptive because it provides the illusion of control. When we innovate systems or improve products, we feel like gods. We are in control of our situation and able, at least in our minds, to affect change and make our lives better.

We are addicted to “better” because it is the best we can do. We cannot fix the human condition, but we can make our circumstances incrementally better. We are making progress. Unfortunately, our progress is limited by our condition and we are unable, regardless of how much progress we make, to achieve the ultimate goal, redemption. We cannot fix ourselves.

Progress is Alluring
Not only is progress deceptive, it is alluring. We are drawn to progress. Since we are fallen, sinful people, we strongly desire to be better. There is a real sense that if we can make progress, we feel better. Progress is a drug that soothes our pain.

The disciples were victims of the allure of progress. They were drawn to Jesus as the Messiah, in part, because they longed to be free of Rome. They wanted Jesus to establish a new government. Prior to Christ’s resurrection, the disciples did not understand the Kingdom that Jesus was going to establish. They simply were drawn to their limited concept of progress.

We think we know what we want. We want peace, happiness, economic stability, and comfort. Just like the disciples, our vision of a preferred future is limited and, honestly, small. We cannot see what God is doing and; therefore, settle for less than we should. We are satisfied with progress when God is calling us to so much more. He is calling us to Himself.

Progress is Distracting
As we have seen, progress is dangerous. It is deceptive and alluring. Perhaps the greatest danger of progress is that it distracts us from God’s purpose and plan.

Two Biblical stories come to mind. One highlights how our definition of progress can differ from God’s definition of progress and the second reminds us that reaching a destination is not as important as the state of our heart.

The story of Joseph is a fascinating study on the paradox of progress. By human standards, the events of Joseph’s life are unjust and unproductive. He is sold into slavery, falsely accused, and passed over. In God’s Providence, however, Joseph is exactly where God wanted him. Joseph was making progress!

As believers, we must be careful to avoid being distracted by the world’s definition of progress. Perhaps, we are right where God wants us, even when we are not making “progress” in the traditional sense.

The story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness teaches us another lesson on progress. Our limited understanding of progress forces us to recognize success only when we reach our intended destination. By our standards, wandering in wilderness for forty years is the definition of a complete failure. The Israelites literally made no progress. The problem with our definition of progress is that it distracts us from God’s purpose and plan. He doesn’t just want us to arrive at our destination, He wants our hearts. He wants us.

Progress is distracting because it keeps us from seeing what God is doing in our lives. He has bigger plans than our current circumstance or our present location. He wants to accomplish His plans and He wants to change our hearts.

Progress is a Blessing
I have come to the conclusion that progress is not evil. Progress has limitations but it is not to be shunned. We are called to make progress in our sanctification and should attempt to improve the world around us by making incremental progress. We do, however, need to avoid worshiping progress. When progress becomes our god, we are deceived, allured, and distracted into thinking that we are in control and that we have the ability to fix ourselves.

Yet, when we see progress as a gift from God, we focus on Him rather than on ourselves and begin to embrace His timing and His plan. Ecclesiastes 12:13 is a wonderful summation of the proper view of progress. It says, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” We are not called to worship progress; we are called to “fear God and keep His commandments.”

As Christian educators, it is very difficult to avoid Disneyian thinking when it relates to our students, our schools, and our future. We want to believe that we can make a difference, that we can make progress. We want our students to be empowered to make progress individually and to live lives dedicated to making progress. We have the best intentions but still struggle with the idol of progress.

I believe that deep in his soul, Walt Disney knew that progress was not our goal. He left us two messages in the Carousel of Progress ride that provide a fitting commentary on the worship of progress.

First, Walt’s Carousel of Progress is a circular ride. You literally don’t go anywhere. You end where you began. The characters in the ride have made progress but still have the same basic needs, dreams, wants, and hopes. They are still fallen and in need of a savior. Real progress is not improved technology; it is transformed hearts.

Second, in the final vignette, Walt’s modern family celebrates the conveniences of new technology. In particular, the oven temperature is able to be adjusted by voice command. Ironically, the technology fails and the holiday turkey is burnt. Walt leaves us with this final image of progress and a sober reminder that worshiping progress will “cook your goose”.

Dr. Mitchell Salerno is Superintendent of The Master’s Academy in Oviedo, FL, President of the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation, and is a well-regarded speaker on school innovation and technology.

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